Opinion |

Who Are We to Tell Religious Jews What to Do at the Western Wall?

After all, the Orthodox made the Western Wall a holy site, while we secular Jews banished God from our lives

Irit Linur
Irit Linur
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Ultra-Orthodox worshipers in the men's section at the Western Wall.
Ultra-Orthodox worshipers in the men's section at the Western Wall. Credit: Thomas Coex / AFP
Irit Linur
Irit Linur

Like many secular Jews, I am not particularly interested in the Kotel. It has no shade or Zara outlet. But, I hopped over there this week for a surprise visit, and two things caught my eye. First, there was the mixed gender prayer space. It is beautiful, built on an impressive archaeological site below Robinson’s Arch. Unlike the Western Wall plaza, it is shaded, and you can enter it without a security check.

The second impression was the difference in the number of visitors to the two plazas. There were thousands of people in the Western Wall plaza on a regular weekday. There was just a cat in the mixed section. In light of the outcry that arose around the nixing of the Kotel agreement one would have expected to see thousands of Women of the Wall, imbued with religious spirit, alongside bar mitzva ceremonies in which grandma need not stand on a chair to get a peek at the men’s section. However, the mixed section was practically abandoned.

A few meters away, the Western Wall is teeming with Jewish life, despite the long – and gender-segregated – security inspection line. It is full of life because for hundreds of years its natural guardians – the Orthodox – preserved its holiness. They engage in it, with texts that are hundreds or thousands of years old, and a rabbinic hierarchy, and tradition and strict rules that if they change at all, change s-l-o-w-l-y. And they are engaged in the daily observance of commandments and prohibitions that not everyone can rationally explain, and some of them are unacceptable. And even those that are acceptable can be deceiving: Orthodox Jews’ strict observance of Shabbat does not stem from an adherence to socialism or primordial support for workers of the world but rather a godly commandment. Orthodox Jews avoid schnitzel with butter even though they know chickens do not produce milk. And the Kotel is most definitely holy because anyone who keeps chicken and milk separate is exactly the type to find holiness in stones.

The obsession with holiness is sometimes annoying, perhaps even arrogant, so particularly witty secular Jews can mockingly call God “an imaginary friend” or compare him to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But when faith in an imaginary friend begets the Bible, a people and a 2,000-year-old culture as well as a moral system that ignited Western culture, you can drop the smugness with which people brag about their atheist purity. And let’s admit the truth: Not keeping commandments is much easier than keeping them.

Some will say that even without commandments secular Jews are no less Jewish than religious ones, so they should be equal partners is determining the character of the Kotel. It is correct in principle, but there is meaning to keeping your religious traditions, or at least recognizing them, before pretending to make religious rulings. I, for example, am a typical product of state secular education. I was surprised to discover in my first year of university that the Rambam was a world-famous philosopher and not just another baba from the graves of righteous Jews. Thus, I still don’t feel ready to write a prayer equal to the Aleinu, or to prove that God is totally cool with driving on Shabbat and with a female rabbi. You have to wait 500 or 600, or even 2,000 years for that.

And if we insist on secularism as a value, it’s hard for me to understand the accompanying insistence on sitting on the tribunal, free of religion’s bonds, and shouting out directives to a Jew who fasted not only on Yom Kippur but also on… nu, remind me … oh, right, Gedalya, and furiously reads the entire Hagaddah every Passover seder, including the part after the meal. We are arguing with these people about Judaism, and what is the right Judaism, and how Judaism should be, while we are armed with ignorance that we acquired through state secular education, a very partial study of the Bible, “Two are holding a tallis” from seventh-grade Talmud class, and that’s it. We sometimes seem like six-year-old children who are trying to join a philosophy discussion without knowing who Plato is.

You don’t have to be religious to recognize the religious contribution to turning the Kotel into much more than an archaeological site. Religious Jews made the Kotel holy long before we extended Israeli sovereignty over it, including periods in which praying there was dangerous. They prayed without a partition between men and women when the Ottoman regime forbade Jewish worship. Religious Jews adhered to their imaginary friend, whom we banished from our secular lives. We rejected large parts of the cultural enterprise that Judaism fostered, and we even defended our children from it. We complained about religious influence in the education system, instead of complaining that they didn’t teach us how a siddur looks.

Excuse me, but I don’t believe a sudden outburst of holy lust has overcome us. It looks to me like the disappointment of those who fully believed you could have a Jewish state without Judaism, and perhaps an overreaction by those whose enlightened sensitivities are repulsed by any level of religious feeling.

The fight over the Kotel isn’t really about Reform Jews. They are a marginal group in Israel. They may be a – not especially effective – barrier against mass assimilation. However, Israel is the only place in the world in which you can be a Jew and, without fearing for the Judaism of your grandchildren, cast off the burden of commandments and still feel as Jewish as Moses. None of this could exist without religious Jews. As a secular person, I believe that if we run the Kotel according to secular standards, it will look less like a holy site and more like a parking lot. Fortunately, the Orthodox will keep praying there even then.

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